Colin Beavan is an interesting fellow. Akin to A.J. Jacobs’ experiment of spending a year upholding the tenets of the Torah for his best-selling The Year of Living Biblically, No Impact Man is an experiment to raise awareness of humanity’s impact on the environment, as well as a gimmick to hype Beavan’s book of the same name. The premise of No Impact Man is relatively straightforward: For a year, Beavan, along with his wife, Michelle Conlin, and baby daughter attempted to lower their environmental impact to zero. The experiment consisted of several phases, each one doing away with more and more of society’s comforts. The film details the progress the Beavans make throughout the year, and how the endeavor affects their lives. While the documentary can be tedious, the most illuminating facets of No Impact Man deal with the apparent contradictions that hamper Colin’s grand social experiment, specifically in regard to his relationship with Michelle.
At first, Beavan limits his family’s diet solely to food grown within a 250-mile radius of their New York City apartment. This poses an interesting dilemma for Michele, who consumes an average of four espresso shots a day. Since they cannot find anyone who grows coffee in New York, she has to go without. Her caffeine withdrawal is visceral and sometimes painful to watch, as she tries to reason with Colin, doubting her ability to perform her work adequately at Business Week without her favorite stimulant. Colin becomes increasingly frustrated with her, employing passive-aggressive techniques to make her feel bad enough about herself to continue his experiment and accusing her of making lame excuses.
By the time six months have passed, the Beavans have cut the electricity to their apartment, no longer buy anything packaged, and have stopped using toilet paper. An amazing thing happens at this point in the film, when Colin and Michelle reflect on their experiment, realizing the benefits, both physical and psychological. Instead of watching reality television and consuming high-fructose corn syrup, they play Pictionary with close friends and prepare elaborate meals with root vegetables sans olive oil (E.V.O.O. is sourced from too far away, unfortunately). Michelle has come to accept the great number of sacrifices that Colin has asked her to make, and everything seems hunky-dory.
But things take a turn for the worse when Michelle suggests they consider having another child. Colin’s reaction to this is overwhelmingly bitter, asking Michelle how she could ask him to make such a sacrifice. The irony here is not lost. For a man who constantly reiterates his opinion that society has become much too selfish and radically individualistic, Colin seems unaware of his own self-centeredness. While it’s all fine and good to fret about humankind’s impact on the environment, this fretting does not constitute an excuse to treat your own family with less respect than the global array of strangers which you’re attempting to inspire.
As a whole, No Impact Man feels more like a propaganda piece than a documentary. The elements of the Beavan’s year of asceticism that directors Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein chose to include in their film do not provide adequate counterpoints to further bolster the integrity of the experiment and what it is saying about modern culture. Such a sensational project deserves quite a bit more context and critique than the filmmakers -- and Beavan himself -- are willing to give it.